If I should shout, who would hear me among the armies of angels? --Orestes in "Landscape in the Mist"
Fear, exhilaration, harrowing isolation . . . These are among the elements of Theo Angelopoulos' piercingly sad masterpiece, "Landscape in the Mist" (Nuart).
It's a movie wondrously wrought, heart-breakingly beautiful. It conveys, with stunning impact, part of the alienation of the whole postwar era: the death of the past, the steady erosion of optimism, the loss of the consolations of family, religion, tradition and political idealism.
Working at the peak of his inspiration and gifts, Angelopoulos crystallizes that disquiet in a pared-down plot, the odyssey of two illegitimate Greek children, wandering over the desolate highways and railroad lines of their country. Searching for a "father" who proves to be an illusion, they move toward a dream within a dream, a film within a film, a landscape dissolving in strange and inexplicable mists.
Like many great poets, Angelopoulos lets images, feelings and ideas overwhelm his story. Here Voula, 14 (Tania Palaiologou), and Alexander, 5 (Michalis Zeke), have been deceived by their mother into believing their absent father is "away" in Germany. When they flee for the border to "join" him--taking illicit rides on trains, hitch-hiking on vans and lorries, and suffering poverty, rape, and exploitation--they are taking a dangerous leap of faith, an eerie plunge toward liberation and danger. In a way, it's a search for order in a chaotic world, a search for a God the world tells them is non-existent, for an affirmation masking their own sad or sordid origins.
Angelopoulos' co-writer, Tonino Guerra, is Michelangelo Antonioni's usual collaborator, and Angelopoulos fuses some of the gorgeous austerity of "L'Avventura" with the child's-eye approach of De Sica in "The Bicycle Thief." Much of "Landscape" is shot under a sky that seems impenetrably overcast: gray, autumnally chill, sometimes thick with driving rain or a sudden, ecstatic snowfall. It unwinds on vast plains that stretch around the tiny figures of the children, making their hard and lonely way.
And, since Angelopoulos, as always, tends to shoot in extremely long takes--staggeringly well choreographed and executed, translucently lit by cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis--all the characters begin to seem figures in the landscape, stripped of freedom.
Throughout "Landscape," we are always aware of life on the edge, of the uncertainty and fragility of most human endeavor. The children, outside a boisterous nocturnal wedding celebration, tearfully watch the last flailing agonies of a dying horse--feigned for the movie, but still terrifying. Their only benefactor is a buoyant young motorcyclist, just about to be drafted: Orestes (Stratos Tzortzoglou), a van driver for a failing, itinerant theater troupe--the "Travelling Players" returning from Angelopoulos' 1975 classic.
A joyous but tormenting scene of repressed love is enacted to rock 'n' roll on a windy beach; border guards sweep murky grounds with a searchlight and fire into the darkness. A hair-raising rape scene takes place off-screen as cars whiz past an ominous parked truck. A huge stone hand, remnant of past Greek glories, is lifted from the ocean and vanishes, helicopter-borne, into the distant sky.
Most great films contain two or three memorable set-pieces; "Landscape in the Mist" (Times-rated: mature, for discreetly handled adult situations) contains almost nothing else. And though most movies gain their significance from an immediate social context, or compared with other work around them, "Landscape" is a film for the ages. If it is not a classic, then the word has no meaning.
Why has this movie--one which received both the 1988 Venice Silver Lion and the Felix as the best European film of 1988, by a director hailed internationally for two decades--taken two years to reach American screens?
Perhaps it's because we've lost our taste for, our appreciation, or even our comprehension of the kind of cinematic poetry Angelopoulos distills. Caught between high-tech gloss on the one hand and rougher-hewn iconoclasm on the other, we may be blind, in many ways, to works that don't pretend to have all the answers: films like this one, which reveal their own pure sense of the overpowering beauty, terror and mystery of life.
'LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST'
A New Yorker Films release of a Theo Angelopoulos/Paradis Films/Greek Film Centre/Greek Television ET-1/ Bascinematografica Production. Producer-director-script Theo Angelopoulos. Co-script Tonino Guerra, Thanassis Valtinos. Camera Giorgos Arvanitis. Art director Mikes Karapiperis. Music Eleni Karaindrou. Editor Yannis Tsisopoulos. With Michalis Zeke, Tania Palaiologou, Stratos Tzortzoglou, Eva Kotamanidou, Aliki Georgouli, Vassilis Kolovos.
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
Times-rated: Mature (Adult themes and situations).